York singer Suzy Martell has won legions of country music fans world-wide, but her biggest battle has been against cancer. MAXINE GORDON reports.

HER first memory is of dancing around the family home with a hairbrush, doing an impression of Gary Glitter. "Performing was all I ever wanted to do," says Suzy Martell, the York country singer turned toast of Nashville.

Wearing a scarlet red skirt and PVC jacket - Suzy is a vegan - a market stall-load of jewellery, knee-high stretchy boots and fuscia-pink lipstick, this 35-year-old country singer from Heworth is no shrinking violet.

She left school at 15 and began her professional singing career touring the working men's clubs of the north. Mum Hazel was her driver-cum-roadie while dad Bill worked as a milkman to finance the venture.

Back then, Suzy's ambition was to get better work and perhaps get on radio. When these things happened, her horizons broadened. She wanted to headline at a big theatre.

Today, she's done all that, and more. She's made an album in Nashville, worked with some of the biggest names in her field and is now taking her music in a new direction by experimenting with the blues.

Ask her now about her ambition, and you will get a different answer. "I just want to carry on what I'm doing and live every day as it comes."

Simply being able to sing is a miracle in itself for Suzy who, four years ago, was diagnosed with throat cancer.

After gruelling treatment at the Ear Nose and Throat unit at York Hospital which involved surgery and radiotherapy, Suzy was unable to speak for 12 weeks. But the prognosis was worse: doctors said she would never sing again.

Suzy was devastated. "There was no point in living if I couldn't sing. That's all I've ever done," she said. Determined to recover her voice, Suzy worked daily with a speech therapist. When her speaking voice returned she saw a singing teacher who taught her how to use her voice in a way which would not damage her throat.

But the results were a surprise.

"I was really shocked when I heard my voice. It had gone down an octave and was a lot deeper," says Suzy. "But it sounded better; more sexy and sultry."

Having followed a vegan diet, which rules out all animal products, since she was 12 and never having smoked, Suzy believes her cancer was caused by working in smoky pubs. When she hit the road again, she would try to play in venues which restricted smoking to the bar area, or would ask people not to smoke around the stage.

Luckily her loyal fans loved the new voice and she was soon gigging again until about 18 months later when she began to feel poorly. Tests revealed she had cancer in her ovaries and she had to have a hysterectomy. She was only 32.

"It wasn't so hard to deal with as losing my voice because I was a career girl and never wanted children," she says in her typical straight-taking Yorkshire way. "What was hard was to come off the road because I was just getting back. But at least this time while I was laid up I could sing."

Suzy has been a long-term devotee of herbal medicine and decided not to go on to hormone replacement therapy after the hysterectomy. Instead she used Black Cohosh, which she describes as a "herbal HRT", and swears she had no adverse menopausal side effects. "I've used soya products all my life so perhaps that helped too," she says.

More controversially, Suzy also refused any more radiotherapy. "I just couldn't go through it all again. I am very strong and have this inner strength just to get on with things," she says. This meant having a holiday in Nashville with her mum.

It was Suzy's first time in the capital of country music and she met up with many old friends whom she knew from the circuit tour back in Britain. She had a great time going to gigs and getting up to sing for fun.

And then she was spotted. A lucrative deal was offered with a big record label but there was one hitch - they wanted to mould her into a British version of Shania Twain, and Suzy was not for turning.

"I walked out. People were really shocked that I did that. In the States my nick-name is Crazy British," says Suzy, laughing with relish.

Undeterred, she ploughed ahead with her dream of recording an album in Nashville, after borrowing money from friends and relations.

The result, Broken Hearts In Nashville, did well in the country charts both sides of the Atlantic. Things were going well until last summer when she fell ill again. Cancer had returned, this time to her stomach.

"It was a real shock, because I felt better," says Suzy. "It was really the lowest point in my life. Every time I got over it, it just came back."

Against doctors' orders, Suzy eschewed chemotherapy and sought out treatment from a herbal doctor in Hull. She began taking Germanium, an iron ore in white powder form and Essiac, a blend of herbs reported to shrink tumours and she began eating more raw fruit and veg and drinking lots of carrot juice.

She is adamant that her way is not for everyone and would not wish to give people false hope that these methods can cure cancer, but she is convinced they will work for her.

A firm believer in the powers of healing, Suzy also attended an Indian Pow Wow in Kentucky, USA, which drew a crowd of 13,000.

She was one of six people plucked at random from the crowd and taken into a tee pee where a medicine man wearing a giant headdress laid his hands just above her stomach.

"There was an intense heat, it was quite painful and hurt so much I passed out," she Suzy.

Later, she noticed some scars on her stomach, and at her next check-up in York, doctors found her tumour had shrunk dramatically.

"Many people think I'm off my rocker but I'm still here, so something happened," says Suzy, who still attends check-ups in York every six months, and says she is feeling "better than ever".

As a thank you to the staff at the Ear Nose and Throat unit at York Hospital, Suzy has organised a fundraising gig for next month at Joseph Rowntree Theatre.

Joining her for the night will be a mix of York acts: Chris Laurence, the New York Dance Band and the Red Shoes dance studio.

The gig also ties in with the release of Suzy's new single, A Dose Of You, which sees her adopting a more bluesy style and is a taster of the new album to be recorded early next year.

"People have been paying me to sing a dedicated song on the night, so I'll be doing everything from Patsy Cline to Barbra Streisand, which will be great fun for me and my band.

"I want York people to get behind it because it's all about giving something back to York hospital.

"Thanks to them, I am able to sing again."

Suzy Martell's benefit gig is on Friday, November 7, at Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York. Tickets cost £8/£6 concessions and are available from Ticketworld on 01904 644194

Updated: 12:09 Monday, October 20, 2003